DALLAS, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Republican presidential hopefuls reject a Texas Baptist minister's criticism of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, saying it is not a campaign issue.
But Robert Jeffress of Dallas' 10,000-member First Baptist Church, who supports GOP hopeful Texas Gov. Rick Perry, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "false" faith Sunday and said Christians had a duty to "push back against evil."
"Part of a pastor's job is to warn his people and others about false religions," Jeffress said from the pulpit. "Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism are all false religions."
His comment received congregational applause.
He added he also believes it is important for American Christians "to elect Christian leaders who embrace biblical principles."
Jeffress told reporters at a "Values Voter Summit" in Washington Friday he considered Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, "a good, moral person, but someone who is part of a cult" and "not a Christian."
Jeffress introduced Perry at the event.
GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor, is also Mormon.
Perry had no comment about Jeffress' remarks, but his campaign sought to distance him, saying the Texas governor does "not believe Mormonism is a cult."
Romney denounced "poisonous language" when he spoke at the conference Saturday and called for "civil and respectful debate." His comments were aimed at another event speaker, radio host Bryan Fischer, a director of the conservative American Family Association who has made anti-Mormon comments in the past as well as attacking Muslims, American Indians and gays.
Huntsman Sunday called the Mormon controversy a "ridiculous sideshow" that "doesn't create additional jobs ... doesn't expand our economic base -- it doesn't secure our position in the world."
"I have no idea why people are wasting so much political-capital bandwidth on this issue. It's nonsense," he told reporters after a town hall session at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.
Candidate Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, told CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday "to make this a big issue is just ridiculous."
"This is so inconsequential as far as this campaign is concerned," she said. "We have religious tolerance in this country and we understand that people have different views on their faith."
GOP hopeful businessman Herman Cain told the program he was "not getting into that controversy."
"I'm not running for theologian in chief," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also seeking the GOP nomination, told the CBS program "Face the Nation" he considered Jeffress' comments "very unwise and very inappropriate."
"I think that none of us should sit in judgment of somebody else's religion," he said.
Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, said he didn't think Mormonism was a cult and "every Mormon I know is a good and decent person."
The candidates are to participate in a debate at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College Tuesday -- the first debate billed as focusing solely on the U.S. economy.
It will also be the first debate since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both popular GOP figures, announced they would sit out the White House race.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest denomination in the Latter Day Saint movement started by Joseph Smith in 1830 during a U.S. Christian revival known as the Second Great Awakening.
Mormons believe, under the doctrine of "continuing revelation," that Jesus leads the Mormon Church by revealing his will to its president, whom adherents regard as a modern-day "prophet, seer and revelator."